Ira Hawkins had been born Bolivar Dunnydon in Belfast, Ireland in the early 1790’s. At the age of five he was suddenly orphaned when his parents and older sister died of cholera. Learning struggle at a young age, he then spent five very formative years at a Catholic monastery orphanage. He received a moderate education before running off to find his niche in the world. Eventually he found his way to the shipyards, growing up tough and strong, working the docks, running the wharfs and dirty backstreets, carving out a meager existence.
By the time he was thirteen, he was the top ringleader for a gang of boys that worked the docks pilfering goods for the local thugs and various riff-raff. A wily, pan-eyed naughty boy laughing over a shoulder draped with loot, plying his sharp-witted tricks of the trade, always one step ahead of the snare. However, his name occasionally got out to the authorities, and he already had several dangerous enemies among Belfast’s many roving bands of ne’er-do-wells.
So Bolivar Dunnydon decided it was time to leave Ireland. He and two cohorts, Tom and Peter, stowed away on a ship bound for America. Mercy’s Wind was a Dutch cargo vessel that had briefly ported-in to pick up a large shipment of whiskey, before catching the trade winds to the Gulf of Mexico.
On the first half of the journey across the Atlantic, the three boys were able to keep themselves well hidden in a little nook between the whiskey barrels and large crates of furniture. But Peter used his knife to gouge open a crack in one of the barrels. Soon the boys were passing round a cup as the wet spirits spilled to the floorboards, making up their own song of Flying to America on Irish Whiskey Wings. The singing got louder and eventually the boys were discovered, sick as dogs, and made to swab the deck in the sweltering heat of a tropical sun.
Two weeks later, at the busy port of New Orleans, the voyage’s financier brought charges against the boys. They were then pressed into ten years of indentured servitude at the man’s large plantation just west of the city. From the very start they were forced to work long, grueling hours. They sometimes picked cotton, loading the raw crop onto large basket-like carts to be hauled to the river, where it was floated in barges to the mills in New Orleans. But mainly they worked the sugarcane fields, hacking away with hooked collar blades, toting heavy bundles of the thick, sticky poles, also to be hauled off for the short transport downriver.
Because they were white, they were given a little more freedom than the black slaves, who were bit more confined. But still, the three boys were miserable. They’d been told early on that an escape attempt would not only lose them what little privileges they had, but could also add to their years as a servant. Besides, there was nowhere to run. They would easily be found in New Orleans, and outside the city was nothing but more plantations, swamps and wilderness. If they joined up with any pirates or outlaws, they ran the risk of being betrayed. Their master would very likely put a handsome price on their heads, adding even more time to their misery.
Tom and Peter had simple, easy-to-remember names. But Bolivar’s name was unusual, so he was called Ira because of his thick, syrupy accent and his nationality. At first he hated the nickname. He often got into fights with those of equal pecking order who called him by it, especially Tom and Peter.
Then one day after a bad storm, he found a fledgling red-tailed hawk that had been blown from its nest. He named the baby raptor Chéri and raised it to adulthood. While the hawk was still young he fed her a sundry of small creatures; worms, cicadas and crawfish. As she grew larger Ira fed her mice, fish, even whole chickens and rabbits. Ira would occasionally let the majestic bird perch proudly on his shoulder as he went about his daily duties, flapping her wings whenever he would run or jump, or hold her out high on his arm. Chéri became a bit of a fixture on the plantation in those days. A vigilant creature with intense, shimmering eyes that darted back and forth in utter fascination of all that surrounded her.
During this time, for well over a year, many of the other slaves and servants began calling Ira “Hawk” or “Hawk Boy”. Soon, he decided to simply take the name Ira Hawkins. His companionship with Chéri helped Ira adjust to his new life, allowing him time to accept the realities of his situation. And as a ceremonial gesture to his own hoped-for freedom, he released her back into the woods. Sometimes he would glimpse the great bird soaring above the trees of the plantation. Beautiful Chéri - now master of the sky, circling free as the mid-day sun shone through her thick, roughed-up, reddish-brown plumage, waving her graces to the servant that raised her.
For over four years, Ira’s life was very routine, up before sunrise, working the fields till dark. Once in a while there were lulls in the work and he was able to catch a short nap, or do something on his own time, like read a book. Sometimes he would take a walk down by the river to just sit and watch the massive, lake-like waters flow by.
Sundays, however, were a whole different world on the plantation. Little or no work was done and the black slaves would congregate in one of the barns or one of the wide-open, shaded oak groves. It did not matter. All that mattered was that they got together and praised God as if Jesus Himself, in the flesh, was about to show up at that very moment. Ira had never seen anything like it, (except at one of the backstreet-wharf pubs in Ireland after a large successful haul). They lifted their hands up to the sky, clapping and singing, shouting and dancing in circles up and down the row with trance-like fervor. Ira would sometimes sit and watch, but from a safe distance, for if he got too close he was grabbed and pulled into the crazy mix to be thrashed about like a net full of fish.
Other times, he went into the city on a supply run. He was allowed to mill about the long stretch of docks, gaping at the endless row of ships from all over the world. He had been too exhausted, sick and frightened to get a good look at the port when he first arrived, but now the scene was simply grand. Every so often, he got to walk deep into the French Quarter to view the illicit sights of its backstreets, gaudy, debauched and carnival. He would stroll the Rue Conti to Bourbon, down to the Rue Dumaine, past the voodoo shops and back up to the French Market. Then he would go into the Saint Louis Cathedral to pray for the souls of his mother, father and sister. After crossing himself, he would light three candles and slowly walk the Stations of the Cross, recalling what little memories he had of his family. He never knew why he did this, and he never mentioned it to anyone.
Finally, one summer, something happened that would drastically change Ira’s standing at the plantation. Back at the shipyards in Ireland young Bolivar had often been required to actually work in the water. He checked hulls and rudders for damage and retrieved items that had fallen overboard, turning him into a powerful, confident swimmer. Now he was a young man, nearly full grown at six-feet-tall, lean and muscled from the hard work, with strawberry-blond hair that fell in curls to his broad, chiseled shoulders. Still he would swim when the mood suited him, diving into the mighty Mississippi against the advice of others to play and frolic in the water like a fish.
That summer a powerful storm blew in from the Gulf. Much of the plantation was flooded by storm surge and the constant driving rains. Three young girls, the plantation owner’s two granddaughters and a niece, were stranded when part of the plantation home was literally washed away. After tying a rope around his waist and to a nearby tree, Ira ventured out into the strong, chest-deep currents. He made three trips, single-handedly rescuing each girl. The owner of the plantation actually witnessed the daring feat in a state of torpid panic. The man was so grateful afterwards, not only did he release Ira from his service, canceling the debt; he also gave him a lucrative position as a paid worker helping rebuild the plantation.
Then things began to go a little more Ira’s way. The change in him was obvious to everyone, especially Tom and Peter. He did his best to accommodate his two friends without compromising his new position, or his new set of values. Tom responded favorably, working harder, seeking purpose in the more complex operations of the plantation. Peter, however, actually shirked his duties, thinking his friendship with Ira allowed him concessions regarding his responsibilities. Ira tried to talk to him, encouraging him to do better, but there was a deep-seated bitterness in the young man. He was repeatedly reprimanded but failed to show any improvements. His behavior even got worse, until finally the head overseer gave him a severe beating. Ira had tried to intervene in the corporal punishment, but it was too late. The master himself had been insulted, giving a cold nod to the overseer.
For a short while Peter showed reform and progress in his work. But his bitterness still remained. He seldom spoke to anyone, and he’d taken to heavy, daily drinking. One day, a couple of months after the beating, the head overseer was found bludgeoned to death. His living quarters had been ransacked, a large sum of money missing, and Peter nowhere to be found. Less than a week later he was found, passed out at a pirate’s pub across the river at Algiers. For two days Peter was displayed in stocks at the corner of Charters and St. Ann with a sign around his neck that read; Murderer Thief. Before he was hanged his last words were, “Gimme a belt’a whiskey,” which he was denied. Ira did not attend the public execution. When asked why, he simply said, “I d’nie think I know’m.”
Within a few years the plantation was again showing a profit, Ira rising to even higher status among the paid workers. By that time, Louisiana had officially been admitted into the American Union as its eighteenth state. But the nation was once again at war with England, a war that had become a disaster for the American experiment. Its economy had been wrecked by an embargo and a blockade. Invasions of Canada had failed. Enemy troops marched on the nation’s capital, torching the White House. And the states of New England were threatening secession. By the summer of 1814, peace talks between the two warring nations began in Ghent, Belgium. But the British made constant objections, dragging out the process. Politics behind such a slow process was to have the strategic port of New Orleans in their possession by the time the treaty was signed.
Rumors of a British invasion had been heard in New Orleans since the war began. But no one knew for sure until the popular pirate, Jean Laffite, sent word to Governor Claiborne that he had been offered a very large bribe by the British to help aid in the city’s capture. Now the question wasn’t if the British were coming, but when? A call-to-arms was given and a local volunteer militia was organized under Major Jean Baptiste Plauché.
After signing up with the volunteer battalion, Ira went into town and bought himself a Kentucky rifle, a beautiful, powerful weapon that could knock a man down at a hundred yards.
“Ya know how to use this thing, boy?” asked the store keeper.
“Never fired a gun in me life,” said Ira as he held the rifle, gazing at its craftsmanship. “But I’m a fast learner.”
For several months Ira drilled in Plauché’s outfit with the rifle he named Betty at his side. He practiced and practiced, learning as much as he could about marksmanship, becoming a crack rifleman. He did all this while still helping run the plantation.
Shortly before Christmas of 1814, General Andrew Jackson arrived with over 3000 men, weary and spent from the Creek Indian War in Central Alabama. He found the citizens of New Orleans in a panic, declaring a state of martial law. It was now known that a large British fleet was anchored in the Gulf, not far from the mouth of the Mississippi. Over 10,000 Redcoats were poised and ready to move on the city. Not only were the American troops exhausted and vastly outnumbered, but Jackson’s men were low on flints, ammunition, gunpowder and other supplies. Again Lafitte came to the rescue, resupplying the American troops, also providing hundreds of well-seasoned fighters and gun crews. After an initial engagement on December 23rd that unnerved the British, stalling their advance up the river, the two armies spent 16 days preparing for battle just four miles south of the city.
Ira Hawkins had been made a squad leader in his ramshackle volunteer outfit. They dug trenches, helping build fortified earthworks along the northern bank of the Rodriguez Canal. It was still dark on the morning of January 8th when rockets and howitzers began to rip through the thick fog over Ira’s head, crashing into the trees behind him. Major Plauché shouted words of support to steady his men. Ira was positioned with his squad at the top of a mound of earthwork, looking out at a dense wall of fog that covered the large field southwest of the canal.
Suddenly the fog began to lift, exposing several regiments of Redcoats moving along the tree line to their left. Ira made the sign of the cross and raised Betty to his eye, as all around him a thunderous crescendos of gun and cannon fire rang out. He took aim on a British soldier screaming at a phalanx of men marching to his side, a martial display of square shoulders and sharp, line-covered bayonets. After holding the man in his sights for several seconds, he squeezed Betty’s trigger, emitting a violent cough of fire and smoke from the rifle’s barrel. The Redcoat jerked, then buckled to the side, falling hard to the ground. As Ira reloaded he saw the British soldiers dropping by the dozen, the Americans blasting away from their well-protected earthen works. On came the enemy, bravely wading into an onslaught of rifle and artillery fire, moving ever closer to the canal, only to fall in teams. From the right, working their way diagonally across the field, came another British regiment of Highlanders and Dragoons, battle-seasoned men of the Napoleonic Wars. General Jackson stood tall on a parapet fifty feet to Ira’s right, a genteel principality directing waves of fire with his sword on the encroaching enemy. The young Irishmen continued to aim, fire and reload, over and over until he lost count. The Redcoats suddenly began to break and run, finally repulsed only yards from their objective, a chorus for songs to be sung.
The British suffered over 2000 casualties, including three generals killed, one of which was stuffed in a pickle barrel to preserve his aristocratic body. The Americans and their pirate allies lost less than 150 men. Andrew Jackson would soon become a household name, a legendary hero of the fabled city. It was later learned that the Treaty of Ghent had finally been signed, two weeks before the Battle of New Orleans.
Ira Hawkins became part of the local fraternity of men who participated in the battle, gaining him even more prestige in the community. He stayed on the plantation for another decade as the lead foremen, frugally saving his money, building himself a nice little nest egg. During these years Ira branched out, slowly reinventing himself, learning as many trades as he could. He even went into partnership in a few successful business ventures, grasping the lower rungs of nobility. Tom, who was now a free man, also chose to stay on the plantation as a supervisor, happily married with a child.
When he first arrived in New Orleans, Ira hated the place for obvious reasons. But now he loved the city’s vibrant, diverse culture, its rapid ever-changing citizenry, and the many gainful exchange opportunities. He had become somewhat popular within the Irish bourgeois class. For the first time in his life he was experiencing true happiness. Ira eventually met a pretty Irish girl named Dorothea Miller, just arrived with her aging father, Gavin, a shoemaker from Dublin.
“Do you pray to the Virgin Mary?” asked Dorothea, after Ira had struck up a casual conversation with her at the market near the wharf.
“Aye, I do,” he said, hoping to impress her with his faith. “Oo’ else?”
“Why, the Lord Jesus Himself,” said the feisty lass. “That’s who else. You must be Catholic.”
“A’course,” said Ira, looking a bit confused. “An’oo idn’t?”
“I idn’t,” said Dorothea, turning away, looking back over her shoulder. “I’m a Protestant.”
“What’s a Protestant?” he asked, getting no answer as she walked off down Decatur.
Six months later, after a rather stormy courtship, Ira converted to Protestantism and married Dorothea. He quit working on the plantation, and soon opened a dry goods business in the French Quarter, which also became their home. The business thrived, and they were very happy together during those hectic days.
Ira soon learned that a close friend, a slave named Rubin from the plantation, was in a bit of trouble. A few years older than Ira, Rubin had taken the fiery-tempered Bolivar under his wing when he first arrived at the plantation years ago, showing him the ropes and keeping him out of trouble with the overseers. Rubin was also a veteran of the Battle of New Orleans, having served in Plauché’s volunteer battalion. But because he was black, he’d received few of the favors bestowed upon the white men of that honor.
Rubin explained to Ira that he had fallen in love with a slave girl named Nancy from the big plantation on Lake Pontchartrain. Nancy was pregnant with Rubin’s child, and her master was known to be picky about who fathered children among his female slaves. The man already had a mate arranged for her within his own stock. If he learned Nancy was pregnant by a slave from another plantation, he was likely to become very angry. To make matters worse, Rubin had already been caught twice sneaking onto the plantation after dark to see Nancy. She was just beginning to show and was still able to keep her condition a secret, but not for much longer.
“She’s my heart, Ira,” said Rubin, almost in tears. “An’ when dat man find out Nancy be wit child, he gonna know it’s mine. Den he’ll sell’er off somewheres faraway, just’a spite me. He be known to do dem kind’a things.”
“Rubin, me lad,” said Ira. “I d’nie think they’ll sell off a healthy worker just ’cause ya got’r pregnant. But lemme give it some thought.”
Ira had once met Nancy’s master, drinking together at some holiday gathering. The next day after talking to Rubin he went to pay a call on the aristocrat at his vast plantation that stretched from the banks of Bayou St. John, to the shores of Lake Pontchartrain. He was very straightforward with the man, candidly explaining the situation and his long friendship with Rubin. Then he offered one thousand dollars for the girl, a price he could barely afford to pay.
“You were right,” said Ira to Rubin the next day, his hand on his friend’s shoulder as if to console him. “They did sell Nancy off.”
Rubin’s jaw dropped.
“She’s help’n Dorothea mind the store.”
“Alla’looya!” shouted Rubin, giving Ira a big hug, then dancing a quick little jig with his friend. “I gets ta be wit’ my ya-ya girl!”
Rubin and Nancy were soon married, traditionally jumping the broom. Not long after that their baby was born, a beautiful girl they named Sarah. Ira let Nancy and baby Sarah, who were legally his, stay with Rubin at the plantation until he could find another way to keep them together. For the past few years, Rubin had been doing extra work, paying small amounts to buy his own freedom. So it wasn’t long before Ira had enough to buy his old friend.
Trade was so good at the dry goods shop, Ira bought the small building next door, expanding the business. Rubin and Nancy had the large slave quarter in the back all to themselves, Little Sarah tucked snug in a papoose while her mother stocked the shelves.
Using his numerous connections throughout the city, and the many plantations that surrounded it, Ira found several other ways to make money in the hustle and bustle of the port of New Orleans. He paid young boys who ran the docks to gather and send out information. This allowed him to find out what was needed and wanted, when and where. Then, he’d deliver those goods and services, eventually becoming a reputable go-between, pocketing nice commissions and finder’s fees.
Within a year Rubin and Nancy had more than paid for themselves. Ira gave them papers stating they were free blacks. Even Baby Sarah had her own little certificate of freedom. Ira now paid them a daily wage plus a percentage of any profits they produced, their contacts within the black community being quite invaluable.
Seven years after the official opening of Ira’s Dry Goods, David was born, a big baby boy with bright, fluffy red hair. And little Sarah was the perfect babysitter for David; she adored him and played with him almost constantly.
But as good as things were, Ira could not ignore the fact that New Orleans was a dangerous town. There was always much of the element about. Disease and plague were not uncommon, and the city’s sanitary works were almost nonexistent. Ira had often considered leaving to find more hospitable environs. He spoke about this many times with Dorothea, but Gavin could not travel and she would never leave him.
Gavin was a pleasant old man who’d been well past fifty when Dorothea was born. He would fix a shoe or two once in a while, but usually he’d just entertain everyone with stories of the old country. When the weather was nice, he would sit in front of the store mending shoes and striking up conversations with passersby.
One afternoon Dorothea stepped out to check on her father. It was a beautiful day, the sun shining through a cool breeze. Gavin was sitting slumped in his chair, appearing to be asleep. She had been preparing herself for this day. As she touched him on the sleeve, she knew he was gone, a pleasant look on his still face. After the funeral she turned to her husband, urging him to make a plan for leaving the city.
“It’s time we go, my darling,” she said, holding baby David, “and find those places you always talk about.”